EPA: Wasatch Front air now in compliance with pollution standards

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, shows northbound traffic on I-15 approaching American Fork. The Environmental Protection Agency says Wasatch Front reductions in air pollution — despite big population increases — has resulted in a change of status.

Years of investments in emission reductions and cleaner fuels have improved Utah’s air quality to a point that federal authorities Tuesday declared the Wasatch Front’s air quality “in attainment” for particulate matter, the gritty pollution that often fills the valleys during wintertime inversions.

While state officials crowed about Utah’s progress, clean air advocates say the Salt Lake Valley’s airshed still has an unacceptable pollution load, with more industrial emission sources and population growth on the way.

After concluding Wasatch Front air quality now meets standards for fine particulate, or PM2.5, and coarse particulate, or PM10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to lift its oversight of Utah’s efforts to reduce this type of air pollution.

“That bureaucratic change is likely to hamper, or even reverse efforts and public policies needed to further reduce our air pollution,” said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The EPA should look at the larger picture. The Wasatch Front needs a greater commitment to air quality improvement, not less.”

But Utah regulators say they have no intentions of putting the brakes on clean-air efforts, they are just shifting gears.

At a Capitol ceremony Tuesday, officials emphasized successes Utah has seen cleaning up the air in its urban areas. Even as the economy boomed and population climbed, overall emissions have declined, according to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

“We have put into place what I think are common-sense regulations that impact all of us, most especially those involved in industry. Our private sector stepped up and is using best available technology,” said Herbert. “So they, in fact, manufacture, produce, provide goods and services in a cleaner way.”

Over the past 15 years, Utah’s population grew by 34%, while emissions declined by 27%, he said. Officials attributed this progress to the cleaner cars on the road, efforts to replace wood-burning stoves and old diesel buses and dozens of other measures that have whittled down overall emissions over the years. The increasing availability of so-called Tier 3 gasoline will continue to yield air quality gains.

“While this is a significant achievement, we know the work is not done,” said Scott Baird, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but we take confidence in the fact that we know what we have done is working and that will motivate us to move forward. Through partnerships, innovation and clear decision-making, we can move forward as we work towards our next goal of reducing emissions by 25% across the state by 2026.”

Back in 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined Wasatch Front communities were out of compliance with federal thresholds for fine particulate, currently set at 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Some of these communities remain out of attainment of federal standards for ground-level ozone, which forms during the summer months.

Since then, the state has seen improvement in wintertime air quality thanks in part to investments approved by lawmakers, according to Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

“I hope we continue like we have in the past this trend for the past 10 years, of fewer and fewer red days,” Adams said. “I think technology and innovation is the answer. The Legislature has known this and we’ve legislated a few things that may help with this.”

Last week, the EPA posted its proposed determination that the airsheds from Utah to Box Elder counties have achieved compliance with the PM2.5 standard, a thresholds some advocates say should be lowered in light of the dangers fine particulate pose to human health.

Once it finalizes the rule, which is open for public comment through Dec. 7, the EPA will accept Utah’s 10-year maintenance plans for ensuring air quality remains within federal standards.

“At the end of that 10-year period, we have to do it again and submit a plan with modeling and projections of population and emissions growth to show we are meeting the standard in the future,” said Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird. “We think that we can still stay ahead of it with our population increase until 2035. And then at that point we will need to come up with more [efforts] because the population increase and the associated emissions with homes, businesses, restaurants, manufacturing will overwhelm the planning that we have right now.”

Critics contend the EPA’s conclusion is premature.

While acknowledging progress toward emission reductions, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) and other groups say the feds may have cherry-picked monitoring data to paint a cleaner picture of Utah’s air quality.

“Redesignation doesn’t take into consideration the disproportionate impact air pollution has on certain communities in Utah,” said WRA attorney Joro Walker. “There’s significant data showing that communities exposed to high levels of air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter, are more likely to get COVID and more likely to die from COVID.”

She complained that the Trump administration ignored its own scientists by refusing to lower the PM2.5 standard.

To account for harsher impacts air pollution inflicts on certain neighborhoods, the DEQ was required to install, albeit belatedly, a monitoring station near Interstate 15. It went in at 4900 South in January 2019, too late to determine whether the PM2.5 standard was being achieved for that area, according to Walker.

Bird noted that data from that new station suggested that on high-pollution days, the air quality there was no worse than other locations in the Salt Lake Valley. However, it did record higher levels on days when the air quality was good elsewhere, suggesting those who live near the freeway are exposed to more PM2.5 for much of the year.